Five Diary Entries from the American Roads
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
By Carmel Henschel
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“Coming, or Going?” — September 11, 2020
I got that one a few days ago. I didn’t look up to catch who was speaking to me — at the end of the day, it was yet another who wanted in on whatever it was I represented to them. Unfortunately for the both of us, considerations of familiarity only reinforce my feeling strange at heart. My world is in a suitcase sat next to me as I type. I keep myself at home by clutching to the goodwill thrifts in red and black that I brought with me across the country. I let fate deal me different faces and I gamble in the direction my eyes dart. Since I started in Santa Fe two weeks ago, my brain became a washing machine that the Americans toss their lives into. I let notions that scare me go for a whirl, soaking in my every position and politic until I’ve cleaned their laundry. It keeps me in business, but I still don’t have an answer to that question.
We are all scared. We may live differently, but sweat appears on the upper lip of each and every one of us. Mothers direct their children through invisible landmines burrowed in open crowds. The elders swerve across streets to escape the grim reaper in me. You are a carrier too. Breathing is a bazooka, and we all sleep on triggers. Our times are war; they reveal diversions in living and its price. People wear their concern for the world in hospital-polyester blue patches. Masks reject death but are a sign that death is in the air. Is their assumption more corrosive on the skin or in the mind? If a post-pandemic existence must host atrophies in relation, how will we reconcile what we lost?
I don’t want to cash my thoughts in on the world ending, but some of these kind folks agree with my methods. We share vices to simulate a communion that once was. We seek prophets on television, villains, and heroes to rationalize our new simplicities. We have ghosts at our front door but the key was tossed sometime in April. A Swiss-American boy drives me to my destination over the span of two days and asks nothing of me. I’ve a roof over my head and a view out the window in perpetuity. Though I feel the love, I am perplexed by the lengths some will go to have a person to speak to. I am even more puzzled by my lengths. Is this search for connection a symptom or cure of COVID-19?
“Weekend in God’s Country” — October 5, 2020
The freeway shoulder is my new best friend. In the faces of truckers, meth addicts, Alaskan fishermen, Chinese immigrants, self-labeled “trannies”, woodchuckers, San Fran Google engineers, Wells Fargo Harold Hills, openly gay Mormon missionaries, Orthodox Christian midwives, Coloradan fur dealers, and ex-Miramax executives, I have seen America. On a camping trip with some new friends in Whitefish, Montana, I dove headfirst into the rustling rivers of 7:30 am and briefly forgot that COVID-19 looms over life. I am eager to join these people in the bliss of their freewheeling, gun-toting, god-given right to apathy. It’s not the most virtuous indifference, but then again, we all forget what we’d like to. I enjoy looking out the window at Elk and Bison in the far-off crevasses of Jackson Hole mountains and pretending they’re ants. It’s very easy to pretend that certain things aren’t what they are.
You know you want to take off that mask. It itches your chin and flushes your cheeks in hot cherry red. Well, that’s what they’re doing down in God’s country, anyways. Fork down another slice of Huckleberry pie, bathe in the scarlet and marigold leaves that fall from autumn aspens, don cargo shorts, and Nike slides in forty degrees as you cast your line at white waters… sounds ideal, doesn’t it? It all comes at the cheap cost of knowing your next public cough could be a killer. The eagerness to dismiss is emblematic of the foolhardy courage that Donald Trump aspires to and inspires in his people. The left seldom understands that the audacity of flirting with destruction is not the rub but rather the premise of their support for such a president.
The existence of these Trumpian opponents is indiscriminate to the regard with which we hold them. This truth passes the new neoliberal class by in a shroud of ease, as we find it simpler to dismiss ideas disagreed than to reckon with them. The assumption of righteousness these days is a public affair, each of the nagging naysayers behind laptop screens confronted only by the silent affirmations of their own walls. How else would one be able to profess shifting American viewpoints from the comfort of their own home? It’s not as though anyone wished for this, but a Stockholm Syndrome diagnosis is in order for anyone trapped within their own limited perspectives. When right and wrongs are drawn in black and white, it is both morally and socially convenient to be on the correct side. Where does that leave an educational system that was intended to enlist variance among its pupils? Contrarianism is just that, and even though the devil needs an advocate every now and then, the Alan Dershowitzes of the underworld need defendants themselves. Or even just worthy adversaries.
“How’s the Weather?” — October 23, 2020
A twenty-year-old girl travels Western America solo during a global pandemic with nothing in her artillery but some Benjamins, theatrical training, and a pocket knife. These circumstances would have her accrue angels and demons all day long, stories and new parables to draw upon when strength is in short supply. She has hope in the educational system but only signs onto Zoom University when she feels like selling her soul to the digital devils. For it is the moments where her tongue is called that she feels disappointed, the landscapes in her mind wither and wilt like the weather in Eastern Washington. All her friends live in tiny boxes, and they would prefer her anonymous. They appoint pleasantries and nothing more, though she does it all for them. She roams and flies and falters for the chance of reconciliation, but no one will ever meet her there. Random strangers give her thousands of dollars in cash for nothing of a kiss or house callbut rather a sympathy. The reason why they run in the other direction after they fork over the dough is they’re just as insecure as her. She can convince powerful people that she’s up next, carry conversations about the emergence of a new life form in artificial intelligence, and live out of a suitcase for months, but god knows she will never, ever, have the ability to be simple. Perhaps if she was, the words would fall out of her mouth like nectar instead of oatmeal, or she could put a smile on your face instead of guttural pangs of confusion that start in the eyebrow and end on the chin.
It’s okay, though, she tells herself. These people could never be half the woman of you. Perhaps she’s right. At the end of the day, though, it’s her who wishes to be like them. For what good is a life of travel if the ticket was only purchased in the pursuit of an intangible something? There’s perspective to cash in on, a paycheck made to the order of notoriety and grandeur, an existence totally individual. The thing textbooks never tell you about individualism is that it’s the loneliest gratification one could ever chase. So eat your heart out, ordinary ones. Cling to your LinkedIns and op-eds, your honorary degrees, and your instafollowers. You may have company, companionship, and comfort, but I have the best seat in the house for a play called You. If ever one day we meet on opposing sides of the hierarchy, I’ll remember the time we shared together. I’ll remember and I’ll smile.
“Architecture for the Hunger Games” — November 20, 2020
There must be something to explain for the lack of connection we share. It seems we retire people when they neglect to excite usor when they keep replaying the same sad old scenes on the sets we know too well. How could any of us bring a new emotion to the table aside from our era’s trademark yearning? There is nothing to be felt outside our doors, nothing of joy, to say the least. Optimists would cite Facebook videos of clapping New Yorkers perched on their balconies. They cheer for the people below them, risking all kinds of health to ensure our neighborhood security. To me, these downward daunts mirror the audience at a circus, drunk on the lust of a freak show.
Our world is impaired, dragging one leg behind from the other. The crutches we rest upon our foundations we don’t quite understand yet. This eerie march to a resolution of untold proportions will unsettle any and all who are attuned to it. For some, there is the hope of searching for answers in the signs our imaginations send us. We take roads for the beauty they might achieve, not knowing of the valleys that could peer up from between the orchards. We dare ourselves to sink into the discomfort of our times, knowing it may lead to unwanted answers. But for the rest of us, there is a silent prayer in the heart — one that sanity should be maintained, thoughts remain tame, and life finds us a happy simple.
Have you driven a car since the pandemic started? And did you ever stumble upon traffic? I first wonder what all those other cars could possibly be doing out of the house. Then, I wonder whether they’ve all thought the same thought as me. If so, we might all be in agreement that “essential matters” fail to pertain to us. But for those who are locked indoors, I’m curious of their ethical casualties. If their awareness for the sensitivities of this era render them more righteous, then what new emotion have the “winners” felt but fear? It is an unfortunate moral war. The days where facts don’t consider feelings are long gone. It seems all language has a twinge of consideration for the lives of masses, and that is too tall an order for each singular person of the 21st century. Doors lock so easily these days. I wonder if they’ll open again, and people will emerge with a new fire for what we lost. Or maybe the ease of seclusion becomes a high we chase, and we order our groceries from smartphonesforever with serotonin arriving in the form of a real-life pizza delivery man. It’s hard to say where we’ll land. All we can do is keep wondering.
“End of the Road” — December 1, 2020
There was no great epiphany waiting at the end of my escape. When people asked what I was searching for, I told them: meaning, employment, love, somewhere to call home… it shook my bones to know that even during this unyielding demarcation of the outdoors, there were still peripheral Americans lost, worrying, and wondering down the abandoned boulevards. Which homes would they return to? Can they even afford to care about this pandemic? I’ve seen and read much about vagabonds. They take their chances against natural conditions, which are mostly careless toward the needs of man, to feel free or in control. But those among the escapees who aren’t on a power bender and have no desires of grand reclamation are perhaps more fascinating characters.
I truly believed all of these people would add up, that the sum of their equation would resemble a memoir. They are jagged and unconnecting, their only common thread is they live in America and wish for more. The man who picked me up hitchhiking out of Eugene, Oregon filled me in on the timeline of his ex-wife’s alcohol abuse, her cheating tendencies, and manipulative gaslights. After all, the folks who take kindly to me are mostly alone themselves. I became a sounding board for their greatest demons, and the story aforementioned was a only a relatively mild display of this. I didn’t ask for much along the lines of confessional, but ended up knowing too much about the fashion in which this world aches. The happiness came when I was smack-dab in the middle of it all, no one to answer to, nothing to feel but truthful. My return home was contingent on lies, assuaging the fears of parents and relatives that a potential un-wellness in me was not the driving factor of the travel. Approximately ninety-five percent of what I saw is inappropriate for domestic or academic settings. Now it must sit with me until it fights its way out.